July 31, 2017 by Sarah Gillie
Parents and teachers will often wonder why a tried and trusted technique for helping one child or young person does not always seem to suit another. Although we know that each learner is unique, the cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all was for so long engrained in education and mass-produced materials and publications that it is sometimes hard to fully appreciate just how many processes must come together in a certain way for such homogenous learning to happen. With that in mind, it’s important to recognise that the timing and combination of support techniques will vary from student to student, and that each student’s learning profile is also developing, meaning that support needs and protective factors are unlikely to remain static.
Fine Motor Support Needs
In typical development, as the fine motor skills that are important for pencil control improve, this aspect of writing becomes more automatic. There are a number of reasons why this may not happen easily for all children, including, for example:
- Developmental stage – humans do not simple become able to perform specific tasks at defined ages, we are individuals and may come to some activities more easily or sooner, and to others with greater effort or later
- Limited exposure to activities requiring manual dexterity such as crafting or construction toys
- A preference for activities that do not place demands on manual dexterity
- Poor control linked to a physical condition such as joint hypermobility
- Motor control deficit linked to specific learning difficulty e.g. dyslexia
In any of the above scenarios, a learner could become frustrated, anxious and/or disheartened if classroom peers appear to be racing ahead. The old style ‘wait and see” attitude does nothing to support either skills or self-esteem. Referral to occupational therapy (OT) can take months unless parents are able and prepared to pay, but this may be what is needed, if pencil skills are delayed due to specific learning difficulties or physical reasons, such as developmental coordination disorder (DCD), also called dyspraxia.
It is important to consider handedness – the world is still predominantly designed for right handers. Left-handed learners have to compensate every day; just writing from left to right places enormous strain, as the writer cannot see what they have just written. Left handed learners may twist their hand into a position that makes it easier to see what they are writing or have written, but this has the negative effect of making the physical act of writing both painful and inefficient. Thankfully, resources and strategies exist that can help. Check out the Left Write Guide and Stabilo’s range of specially designed pens and pencils.
There is some lack of clarity over the use of the word dysgraphia. International sources sometimes use the term dysgraphia to encompass what the DSM-5 describes as specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression. I have seen it used to describe difficulties of transcription as in the Simple View of Writing. In the UK, and in this blog, that subskill of specific learning disorder as defined by DSM-5 is generally considered an aspect of dyslexia.
In the UK, the term dysgraphia is most often used to describe difficulties related specifically to handwriting problems, that is, difficulties with the physical processes of writing, generally attributed to fine motor coordination and often not affecting other motor or literacy tasks, described by Berninger,Abbott (2015) as ‘impaired subword writing’. For the purposes of support, many strategies and techniques will benefit all learners, whatever the reason for their delay, whether dyslexia, DCD/dyspraxia or dysgraphia.
Promoting Fine Motor Development
At home or in the classroom, there are plenty of games and activities that can be introduced to help develop manual dexterity. There is no reason why these cannot be a regular feature of every classroom up to around age 7, and many of the activities can be adapted to support older learners.
Games and toys
Scooping, tweezing and scissoring activities are all helpful for developing precision control in fine motor and can also benefit hand-eye coordination.
I’ve played this game with children as young as 3 and as old as 13 – it’s adaptable, and no-one has ever complained it’s too hard or too babyish.
Geo-boards are amazingly adaptable from free play/design to developing geometry knowledge, planning skills and self-talk for organisation, before even starting on the fine-motor possibilities.
These are just the tip of the iceberg, and of course, there are too many construction toys to mention – most have a larger version thats more accessible.
The traditional Hama beads can be tricky for younger learners or those whose fine motor isn’t quite ready yet, but these 1cm beads are a manageable introduction. Results can be ironed and kept for posterity, or just photographed so that the same beads can be used over and over.
If fingers aren’t ready to make their own models, designs with tools and stampers can promote a sense of satisfaction, as well as developing skills with tools to support writing.
Colouring inside the lines can be torture if hands and eyes aren’t ready yet, but magic painting, where all that’s needed is a paintbrush and a pot of water, is a non-threatening introduction to paintbrush (and therefore pencil) control. The lack of strong colour contrast afforded by this ultra-cheap medium may mean this is not a suitable/enjoyable activity for colourblind children. (More on that another time)
Repurposed household objects
Yes, clothes pegs! Just £1 for 60 at the time of writing. I got this tip from an OT who worked with one of my students years ago, and have used it ever since. Just a few ideas:
- sort into colours
- clip them around a plastic plate/PE hoop or ring/child’s bucket/sturdy box
- take them off
- only take off one colour (be careful of colourblindness)
- put them on in a prescribed sequence/create a sequence for others to spot
- compete against a timed personal best
You probably have lots of these at home already, but if not, they can be found in places like Hobbycraft. Similar activities to above with the same caveat regarding colourblindness:
- sort into colours/sizes/number of holes
- sort into different size/colour containers
- copy/create sequences
- arrange into a shape/design (own choosing or over a large image)
- ‘post’ into a container through a slot using thumb and forefinger
This could be dried beans/peas/pasta or any kind of decorative stones/marbles, but there is an added incentive and element of fun if it is something edible, not to mention the safety aspect if there is a danger of inedible objects being consumed. These can be used for counting and sorting as well as just picking up and eating – just make sure hands, trays etc. are clean :-)!
Supporting comfort and efficiency
There are lots of commercially available products to help make the physical aspects of writing easier. Many can be produced at home or school, or adapted from readily available supplies.
Just a few reasons why these can help:
- promote upright posture/prevent slumping over desk
- reduce stress on hand and wrist
- facilitate copying from a board as learner can look up to see/down to write with eyes rather than moving whole head
It is helpful to have something to hold the paper in place, reducing demands on the writer to additionally keep the paper or book correctly positioned. If this is completely outside your budget, a lever arch file makes a reasonable substitute.
Try a variety of pencils and pens to find the best one for the learner, and obviously be ready to adapt as skills develop and hands grow. There are triangular pencils and pens in varying thicknesses. This can help promote tripod grasp for many developing writers. Stabilo also have right handed versions of their notched writing and colouring pencils that encourage fingers and thumb into a stable, comfortable grasp. The notches run all the way up the pencil, so they work until sharpened to pretty much unusable stub. There is also a wide variety of pencil grips available – some students love these and others can’t get on with them at all. If nothing else has worked it is worth trialling a few. One tip I picked up a few years ago from an OT was to use three tiny stickers on a standard pencil (the solid dots work for this, but you can make them more interesting, depending on the learner). One sticker for the index finger, one for the thumb and one for the middle finger. Just replace them as the pencil gets sharpened. Another OT trick is the Peter Pilot story. There are all sorts of ergonomically designed pens and pencils grips using elastics (you can make your own with hair bands) – check them out online.
There’s more, but this has gone on long enough!
This post is based on lectures presented online and to undergraduate students.
American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®) Washington: American Psychiatric Pub.
Berninger, V., https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11145-015-9565-0 (Accessed 23 July 2017)Abbott, R. (2015) ‘Differential diagnosis of dysgraphia, dyslexia, and OWL LD: behavioral and neuroimaging evidence,’ Reading and Writing, 28(8) [Online.] Available at:
Dockrell, J. Marshall, C. and Wyse, D. (2016) ‘Teachers’ reported practices for teaching writing in England’, Reading and Writing 29 (3) pp.409-434 [Online]. Available at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11145-015-9605-9 (Accessed 4 July 2016)